Speeches

Speech, Dr.James Reilly T.D, Minister for Health. Seminar on a Tobacco Free Country, Alexander Hotel Monday, 26th September 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I might as well tell you, straight up, that when I examine where we’re at, in terms of fighting the menace of cigarettes, I don’t start with the statistics and I don’t start as a politician.

I start with the patients. The men and woman I have watched suffer and die from cigarette smoking.

And I start as a doctor, with decades of experience of watching the insidious work of the tobacco industry as it spends billions to hook young people on smoking.

Let’s be in no doubt. This is an industry that seeks to addict a new generation of young people having damaged or killed many of their parents.

It is monied, clever, strategic and profoundly evil.

Despite all the significant tobacco control measures that have been put in place, despite what everybody knows of the harm caused by tobacco consumption, almost three out of every ten Irish adults smokes.

That’s a tragedy.

A tragedy for individuals and their families.

A tragedy for the health service.

A tragedy for the economy.

I was fascinated and horrified, recently, to read some of Professor Ken Warner’s work. He’s Dean of Public Health, at the University of Michigan, and he points out that for every smoker who dies or quits, the industry needs a ‘replacement smoker’, a child who will become addicted and replenish the base of long-term smokers. Therefore, for the industry to simply maintain the size of its customer base in Ireland, it is estimated that more than 50 Irish children have to start smoking every day of the year.

While research on school aged children does show that smoking rates for those aged 15 – 17 decreased between 2002 and 2006 for both girls and boys, the decrease was much smaller among girls in that age group. The fact remains that the earlier children start to smoke the more likely they are to remain smoking later in life.

The ban on the sale of packs of cigarettes of less than 20 since 2007 was a good step.

The 2009 legislation removing point of sale display and advertising in shops so that cigarettes could no longer sit right beside everyday consumer goods – like sweets and newspapers – was another good step.

Within a year, the proportion of children who recalled seeing retail tobacco displays had dropped by 60%.

Which is why one of the world’s largest tobacco manufacturers has now initiated legal proceedings in the High Court challenging key provisions in the 2009 legislation including the point of sale advertising and display ban.

I can assure you the State will vigorously defend these critically important provisions in the Courts.

How could we not?

Smoking is the greatest single cause of preventable illness and premature death in Ireland, killing over 5,200 people a year. Half of all those people who continue to smoke for most of their lives will die of their habit, half of these before the age of 69.

Premature deaths caused by tobacco use in Ireland are far greater than the combined death toll from car accidents, fires, heroin, cocaine, murder and suicide. You have to wonder at the determined villainy of companies who know their products are such killers, using the judicial process to try to continue to reach innocent children and addict them.

Just last week, I addressed the UN about non-communicable diseases. Diseases like asthma, COPD, emphysema. Diseases caused or triggered or made deadly by smoking.

And I made it clear that the great crusade of the twenty first century has to be against tobacco and those who peddle it.

Of course, much progress has been achieved since the publication of Towards a Tobacco Free Society in 2000.

We’ve improved communication and education.

We’ve provided better support for smokers who are ready to quit.

We’ve instituted tougher regulation of the tobacco industry, so that, for example, they can no longer use misleading descriptors like “light” and “mild.”

Oh, and here’s one you’ll be surprised to hear from me.

The legislation against workplace smoking introduced by the previous Government was a very good measure. A very good measure, that has led to other countries sending delegations to Ireland to work out how to create a smoke-free workplace.

We’ve still some way to go to meet the targets for smoking levels set out in the National Cardiovascular Policy 2010-2019 “Changing Cardiovascular Health.” We hope to reduce the smoking initiation rates by 1% per annum and from 31% to 21% by 2019. The Tobacco Policy Review currently under way in my Department will shortly make recommendations that will help us get our skates on.

I don’t accept, by the way, that the smoking ban is a job half done. Compliance has been consistently over 96%.

A study carried out in 2010 by our good friend and colleague Dr. Luke Clancy confirmed that “the Irish smoke-free legislation was a success as a policy initiative because of the timing, dedication, planning, implementation and the existence of strong leadership and a powerful convinced credible political champion”.

Although a study carried out by the Department of Health earlier this year hasn’t yet been published, the findings indicate that the tobacco policies introduced in Ireland to date, have reduced the prevalence rate by 22% and have save almost 2,000 lives.

Helpfully, the study also points to interventions that could push this further:

  • Like a high intensity mass media campaign accompanied by local initiatives which would see a 6.3% reduction in smoking prevalence.
  • Introduction of large, bold and graphic warning labels which would see a reduction of 1.2% and 1.3% in smoking prevalence for males and females respectively.
  • The complete availability and reimbursement of pharmacological and behavioural treatments, quitlines and brief interventions which would see smoking prevalence fall by 2.2%.

This study will feed into the departmental review I mentioned earlier.

Finally.

During the Summer, I indicated that the Government is considering banning smoking in cars with children under the age of majority.

Exposure to second-hand smoke is a serious health hazard, especially for children. Even brief exposure can cause damage. Particularly in the enclosed space of a car.

The first step towards such a ban will be a public information and education campaign to mobilise public support in advance of the introduction of such legislation. Understanding first. Then action.

This conference is a significant opportunity to assess how far we’ve come and to reinforce our determination to create a smoke-free Ireland.

Inside these four walls, we understand the enemy we’re fighting. We understand how relentless and insidious is the tobacco industry.

We must continue to work together in a resolute way to defeat this killer addiction.

Thank you.